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The Beauty of Japanese Gardens in Kyoto

Kyoto 2010

Photo: Roxana Robinson

I was having breakfast on the 17th floor of the Hotel Okura. One long wall of the restaurant is window, so I was overlooking half of Kyoto. Below was the Kamo River, flowing between old stone terraced banks. Beyond this was a patchwork of single-story buildings, interspersed with a few swooping orange temple roofs. The city spreads on to climb the lower slopes of Mount Daimonji, then stops abruptly, giving way to forest. This rises to an elegant skyline: a long, wooded mountain ridge, lightly brushed with soft clouds, drifting silver mist.

I was in Kyoto to look at gardens. I’m interested in the way different cultures respond to landscape, and in the fundamental question of what a garden is. In Japan, a deep connection to landscape is part of the culture. Shinto, Japan’s oldest religion, considers certain natural forms—rocks, trees, groves, or mountains—to be sacred, representing the kami, ancestral spirits or deities, who inhabit them. Shinto is still widely practiced, coexisting peacefully with Buddhism; a profound engagement with nature is central to both religions. Mountains are sacred spaces, and building on them was long prohibited, except for shrines or temples. That’s why this beautiful forested mountain, scarved with clouds, was still untouched, dreaming silently above the city.

In America, the love of nature is individualistic. It isn’t universally shared, nor incorporated into our mainstream religions. As newcomers, we viewed our land as something to be conquered. The Japanese never had to conquer theirs. They are a part of it, and their love for it is deep, ancient, and communal, as well as spiritual.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, from 794 to 1868. Emperors and shoguns built palaces there; Shinto and Buddhist priests built temples; all of them planted gardens. Many have been preserved—though “preserved” sounds bloodless. These gardens have been clipped, watered, weeded, pruned, swept, walked in, gazed at, prayed in, honored, and cherished for hundreds of years. If you’re interested in gardens, Kyoto is the place. My friend Patrick Chassé, a landscape architect, told me where to go.

On the grounds of Katsura Imperial Villa and Sento Gosho are two great “stroll gardens.” This is a form that flowered during the Edo period (1603–1867). Before, aristocratic gardens were designed primarily for a stationary viewer, but the stroll garden invited the emperor and his party to amble along a path, offering a slowly changing viewpoint. These are supremely sophisticated landscapes that employ all sorts of design elements that were unfamiliar to me: use of the diagonal, “hide and reveal,” and shakkei, or “borrowed landscape”; the incorporation of miniature and metaphor.

In the West, traditionally we have used straight lines, frontality, and symmetry. We admire a direct approach, a doorway centered on a wall. But the Japanese favor the oblique, and their doorways are on one side. They admire subtlety and indirection. The great imperial villa at Katsura is designed on the diagonal; the front door is off-center, and so is the walkway to it. It is surprisingly unsettling. Western design says, “Center and symmetry mean ‘important.’ ” Japanese design says, “Don’t make assumptions.” Japanese design says, “Pay attention.” I like this.

“Hide and reveal” is a subtle way to manipulate the viewer’s experience. Coming around a corner you find your view blocked by a tree or a berm, and a flicker of frustration heightens your delight when, a moment later, a vista suddenly appears: a waterfall with an exquisite pattern of ripples, or a teahouse framed by cherry trees. “Borrowed landscape” is the use of a distant view—a hillside, or a mountain—seamlessly integrated into the garden, so that the larger vista reads as part of the garden composition. Tucking a mountain into your garden is quite an ambitious endeavor, requiring patience, vision, and—let’s face it—affluence.

Katsura and Sento Gosho are a writer’s dream. They’re narrative gardens, filled with sequential delights: exquisite stepping-stones; charming arched bridges; dark, limpid pools. The slope of the hill, the shape of the stones lining the shore, the placement of the teahouse against the trees, the carefully plucked pines—this feels like a pinnacle of beauty and refinement. Japanese garden design is more than a thousand years old, and it has perfected things we’ve never dreamed of. On a pathway, you walk without looking along broad single stones. At a pair of stones you look down to find your footing. This is intended: as you look up, something special lies before you. The subtlety of approach, the perfection of the presentation, and the extraordinary sophistication make these gardens a series of unfolding surprises.

The religious gardens draw on both Shinto and Buddhism. The latter came from China, a hugely powerful cultural influence, and the source of those gorgeous, swooping, scarlet-trimmed tiled temple roofs, as well as tea. Buddhism became the official Japanese religion in 594; several centuries later, the sect of Zen Buddhism arose, as a protest against worldliness. Zen taught austerity, simplicity, and meditation, and created a new garden form.

Zen gardens, which are “dry gardens,” were intended as an aid to meditation. They are modest in size, and enclosed. On one side, wooden steps may rise to the veranda of a temple. The other three sides may be rammed-earth walls. The garden consists of an expanse of sand with a few carefully set stones. Moss may pool around the stones. The sand is raked into patterns. That’s all there is. The garden is absent of life. No birds, no creatures. No flowers, few plants. Nothing stirs, even in the wind. It’s silent and motionless. You can’t go into it. Is it a garden?

Yes. Sitting silently on the steps above it, you realize that the dry garden performs a sort of magical transformation. The spare composition becomes the world, both the outside world of the physical, and the interior world of your consciousness. From the steps above the famous Ryoan-ji, built around 1450, you become aware that a rough upright stone can be a mountain; the raked sand, the sea. Or perhaps the rough stone represents enlightenment, the raked lines, the world. They suggest some unanswerable riddle, some mysterious permanent flux: your eye keeps moving, from stone, to sand, to stone. Something about these shapes, and the relationships between them, both quiets and engages the viewer. Around you, silent people muse on a metaphorical landscape that’s five centuries old. The dry gardens expanded the possibilities of the form, offering a garden that would do more than merely delight the senses: it could engage the soul.

The meditation garden took other forms. Shisen-do, the Scholar’s Garden, was completed in 1641 by Ishikawa Jozan, a samurai who left the martial world to become an intellectual. Shisen-do is on the flanks of Mount Daimonji, above the city, in a quiet residential neighborhood. I arrived there early one autumn morning, before the garden opened. The air was clean and fresh, and the stone walkway had just been washed. When the gate opened I climbed the steps alone, between tall trees. The sun illuminated the landing, revealing the entrance to the temple. It’s a low, modest building, intimate and personal: it was Ishikawa’s house. I took off my shoes and walked through the silent rooms. The open veranda beyond gave onto a wide stretch of raked white sand, radiant in the early light. Beyond this was a bank of dense green azaleas, sheared into long, smooth, rounded forms, mysterious against the shining white sand. Above them rose luminous clouds of morning mist. It was a place you felt like staying in forever.

But perhaps the greatest Japanese temple garden is Saiho-ji, the Moss Temple. It was designed in 1339 by the Buddhist monk Muso Kokushi. Muso believed that the natural world itself enhanced meditation, and he saw the garden as a means of attaining enlightenment. Saiho-ji is at once a Buddhist temple garden, a Shinto site, and an early stroll garden. It’s also one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

To enter Saiho-ji I had to apply in writing, from within Japan, a week beforehand. I received permission, and I arrived at the designated time. Inside the temple, I was shown into a large room. While black-robed monks chanted prayers, I sat cross-legged at a low desk among other visitors. Using an inkstone and calligraphy brush, I traced a page of Buddhist sutras. Then I carried my sheet to the altar, bowed, and offered it on the pile. Only then might I enter this garden of paradise.

Saiho-ji’s eight acres of serene woodland contain a series of small linked ponds that form the Japanese characters for “heart,” as in “courage.” The water is dark and gleaming, flecked with a few tiny islands. In one pool, two sets of ripples expand outward, meeting endlessly on the quiet, shimmering surface. A path follows the shoreline. The woods are open, clean, and entirely carpeted by moss, which is deep and lush, dense and miraculously luxuriant. It forms a tapestry of textures—silky, fine, plush, coarse, loose—and of shades—silvery, iridescent, brown. Moss has a transformative presence: visitors speak only in hushed, respectful whispers. Moss-topped wooden bridges link the shore and islands. A few narrow rills run through the deep beds of moss, making a muted liquid noise. The quiet sound of birdsong is continuous. Two huge, ancient trees are hung with Shinto rice-straw garlands, declaring the presence of kami. The sense of calm is deep and absolute: this whole space is sacred.

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